October 25th, 2010

storyteller doll

USA Science and Engineering Festival

I had an incredibly busy week (mostly preparing a briefing for a high muckety-muck), followed by an incredibly busy weekend. Much of that activity had to do with the
USA Science and Engineering Festival

There had been a previous, smaller event in San Diego, but this was the first national event. Apparently, there were satellite events in several cities, but the festival on the National Mall was the culmination of the festvities. There were 1500 exhibitors and over 75 performers, so the whole thing was pretty big. I'd volunteered in response to an email from the MIT Club of Washington and was assigned to work at the info booth in the Mellon Auditorium. I should note that when I signed up, I checked the boxes for Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon, assuming I would be assigned to one of those times, but they signed me up for both. Several other people commented on this, so it would help to clarify this for future events.

I got down there fairly early Saturday and checked in at the Command Center. Then I walked over to the Mellon Auditorium where the security guards checked my ID and told me to go to the third floor. As it turned out, they were confused - the third floor was where Lockheed Martin was checking in their volunteers. I went back downstairs and found where the information booth was. We had some scrambling to do to set things up before the festival opened.

Once the festival opened, it became clear that the lay-out of things did not make a lot of sense. The auditorium security funneled people a particular way, so the info booth was actually on their way out, not their way in. We sent people over to stand near the entrance to hand out maps. But all of this could have been solved easily by switching locations of the info booth and the t-shirt sales booth. Again, this is stuff to know for the future.

The actual work was not too bad. The most common questions were predictable things - people wanting to find the restrooms or the shuttle bus stops or the exhibits out on Wilson Plaza. In the latter case, the map was partially at fault, since it made it look like there was an exhit from the back of the auditorium building, which there isn't. Early on, we had a few exhibitors who complained about not getting people to their exhibits, so we did a little pushing. We had also been told to push the "Meet the Scientists" talks, which were in a room at the very back of the building, but that turned out not to be a problem. I went over there to hear Marc Abrahams of The Annals of Improbable Research and his talk was SRO, as was the talk before his.

There were sone questions that were harder to answer. We didn't have an alphabetic list by title of exhibit, so we had to do a lot of scanning (or, in some cases, radio calls to other info booths) to find out where a few specific exhibits were. A couple of people thought that the people who wrote blurbs for the insert in the Thursday Washington Post (e.g. Norm Augustine) were actually speaking at the festival, so were looking for non-existant talks. The resource list told us where things like hardware stores and Starbucks were, but did not give locations of nearby ATMs. (I know the city well enough that I could point them to banks on Pennsylvania Avenue, but some of the other people at the booth were stumped.) Our biggest gap had to do with stamps and stickers that attendees could get on their maps. Some booths were giving out prizes for getting certain stamps, but we weren't given any information at all about those. We did find out about a couple of them, but it was frustrating not to know more. But, overall, these were pretty minor glitches and we were able to be reasonably helpful.

The questions I liked were things like parents looking for activities suitable for children of particular ages (which we did have a list of). My favorite of the day was the young woman who said she wanted to be a meteorologist and asked what booths to go to. Fortunately, I knew exactly where the American Meteorological Society booth was and pointed her there.

My two longer breaks during the day were used to hear the Marc Abrahams talk and to take a couple of things over to the Lost and Found. The latter was partly an excuse to see the exhibits out on Wilson Plaza, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Freedom Plaza, though there wasn't enough time to really do much at most of them. The Improbable Research talk was short and entertaining. It was mostly a summary of the Ig Nobel prizes, with a nice note about the recent Nobelist who had previously won an Ig Nobel. At the end, there was a demo of the bra that converts into two emergency face masks.

I went back on Sunday with a friend who I hadn't seen for a while. Since I could only spend a couple of hours, she brought along another friend and I discovered that going to this sort of thing with a kindergarden teacher can be pretty entertaining. We pretty much wandered the exhibits on the National Mall. We did make a point of stopping off at my company's booth, which had a couple of satellite models, comic books and tangram kits to give out, and an infrared camera. (People could get their photos, but there was aline and it is hardly a novelty for me.) The best exhibit we went to was the Laser Haunted House, which had various laser demos. To be seasonal, many of those involved skulls and other creepy things.

Overall, I think the festival did a great job and I hope it happens again.